Exactly 159 years ago on July 7, 1860, which was more than a half century after the importation of enslaved Africans into America had been banned, the slave ship Clotilde illegally docked in Mobile, Alabama with 110 kidnapped Black men, women, and children from Benin near the west coast of the Motherland.
Among those 110 were a Back woman named Redoshi and a Black man named Oluale Kossola- the last two known enslaved persons in America on the last known slave ship in America- who remained alive until as recently as 1937 and 1935. I guess slavery wasn’t that long ago after all.
In other words, if you are in your late 40s-early 50s, you were born around 1969. That means your parents were born approximately 30 years earlier, close to the mid-to-late 1930s. Stated another way, your mother or father could have encountered elderly Black folks, especially in the South, who had been enslaved or who personally knew someone who had been enslaved. More about elderly people like that, namely Redoshi and Oluale Kossola, later in this article. Let’s get back to that slave ship right now.
The Clotilde, which is the last recorded slave ship that landed in the U.S., was an 86-foot-long, 23-foot-wide, two-masted schooner built to transport lumber.
It was partially destroyed when the ship’s owner burned it down in order to get rid of all evidence of his crime. What was his crime? It was the violation of a federal law known as “The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves,” which was preliminarily discussed as an idea around 1788, then passed in 1807, and finally implemented in 1808. It didn’t go into effect any sooner because the U.S. Constitution wouldn’t allow it.
Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution, ratified in 1788, mandated that the “importation... [of enslaved Africans] shall ‘not’ be prohibited by Congress prior to 1808....” First of all, it didn’t ban slavery; it merely banned the importation of enslaved Africans. Second, it didn’t ban their importation immediately in 1788; it sluggishly and halfheartedly did so 20 years later in 1808.
Why did it take 20 years? The answer’s very simple. It was racism and capitalism. The drafters of the Constitution knew slavery importation was wrong, but they also knew they and others could make hundreds of millions of dollars by continuing it as long as feasibly possible. In fact, as documented last year by Greg Timmons in How Slavery Became the Economic Engine of the South, “When delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787,... there were nearly 700,000 [enslaved persons] living in the United States, worth an estimated $210 million in today’s dollars.”
The background of Clotilde’s transformation from lumber ship to slave ship goes like this. During the early months of 1860, Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Alabama shipbuilder, slave trader, and landowner made a bet with other wealthy slave traders and landowners that he could evade federal authorities and sneak enslaved Africans into the country. He then hatched a scheme to pretend to bring wood from Africa to America. When he arrived there, he engaged in a conspiracy to kidnap 125 Africans but had time to get (depending on various historical records) only 110 because he thought his plan had been exposed when he saw U.S. ships near the area.
Upon arrival back to Mobile with his human cargo that had endured the unimaginably tortuous two-month voyage on the reconverted lumber ship, Meaher was convinced that the feds were onto him. Therefore, he had the Clotilde (also spelled Clotilda) towed upriver during the nighttime hours past the port where he had ordered the captives ashore. He then had the Clotilde set afire.
He was later arrested and charged with flagrantly violating federal law. However, the court incredibly ruled that since the ship was mostly destroyed (obviously by Meaher), there wasn’t enough physical evidence against him and since the Africans weren’t permitted to testify because they were legally considered “property,” not humans, Meaher couldn’t be criminally liable. Therefore, he was acquitted of all charges.
The woman in the photograph is Redoshi and the man is Oluale Kossola (also known by their enslaved names, Sally Smith and Cudjo Lewis). They are the last two survivors from the Clotilde.
Redoshi, born around 1848 and described as a “dark supple princess,” was the daughter of a village leader and was kidnapped at age twelve. Although forcibly converted to Christianity, Redoshi continued to discreetly practice her indigenous West African spirituality. And after being freed at age 17, she became much more public about her indigenous religion and taught it to her daughter, Lethe.
Oluale Kossola, born around 1841 in Benin, had been a village chief before being captured at age 19 in 1860. After gaining his freedom, he became the unofficial spokesperson for all the former Clotilde captives.
It should be noted that, following emancipation, Redoshi, Oluale Kossola, and others from the Clotilde- many of whom were Yoruba and Fon- had raised funds through hard labor in the lumber mills and on farms and then pooled all their resources together in order to pay the exorbitant travel cost of returning home to Africa. But they weren’t able to raise enough money. As a result, they decided to create Africa in America in 1866 by purchasing approximately 10 square miles of land located three miles north of Mobile in an area known as Magazine Point, hence the birth of “Africatown.” Its entrance can be seen in the photograph above.
In “Africatown,” which still exists, the residents opened a school, established a cemetery, and built a church. In this historic community, they continued to retain their cultural traditions and language well into the 1950s. Its population peaked at 12,000 and is currently at around 2,000.
Redoshi became an ancestor in 1937 and Oluale Kossola two years earlier.